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How Can Birds Sing Without Pausing To Breathe?
Posted on Tuesday, April 22, 2014 by eNature
Olive Warbler
Olive Warbler
© Tony Morris
Brown Thrasher
Brown Thrasher
© Ken Thomas

The birds are singing now, and for good reason: breeding season is in full swing.  And it seems to have arrived earlier this year than most.

It’s A Male Thing
It’s the males, of course, providing the music (females make alarm calls and other vocalizations but almost never songs). And while a male will sing for several reasons, the main function of a song is to inform other birds of the singer’s existence. Specifically, a song informs rival males and potential mates of the bird’s species, and subtle variations to the song identify the bird as an individual. These variations are usually imperceptible to humans, but studies have shown that birds respond differently to the songs of their neighbors than to recordings of birds from other areas.

Studies have also shown that female birds respond more favorably to complex songs—provided the renditions still convey basic identity information. In other words, it pays to show off, and this has led to the evolution of some very elaborate songs. Not surprisingly, birds possess some very sophisticated vocal instruments.

Two-part Harmonies
Bird vocalization comes from an organ called the syrinx, which is located in the breast (thus even headless ducks and chickens can quack or cluck). The syrinx is a branched structure through which air passes, and each branch can be controlled independently. As a result, a bird can produce two distinct sounds at the same time, essentially harmonizing with itself or, in some cases, even adding percussion. The haunting melodies of the thrushes and the overlapping phrases of the Brown Thrasher are great examples.

Another physical attribute that contributes to a bird’s ability to produce complex songs is its specialized breathing apparatus (click here for details). By manipulating air sacs and lungs independently, a bird can inhale and exhale simultaneously. That’s what allows the tiny Winter Wren to produce its long, complicated songs.

Are you hearing lots of bird songs these days?  Our mornings seem noisier than rush-hour in New York City right now!


Click here to listen to songs of the Winter Wren and hundreds of other birds. »

(11) CommentsPermalink


A nice little BirdNote show about this very subject!

I enjoy your e-newsletter! Thanks.

Posted by Ellen Blackstone on 4/15

I love getting your newsletters via email.  I’ve learned so many interesting things and like that I can also download calls (which I use for my phone).  For example, my mother-in-law’s call is “the loon”  grin

Posted by Lynn on 4/15

reminds me of “temples of the syrinx” an old Rush song

Posted by emily on 4/15

The mockingbird never ceases to amaze me. I do not understand how it can crank out tune after tune without ever repeating the same one. They seem to be in sets of three or four repeats each. They also sing all night, at times, when other birds have turned in.

Posted by Gary Cunnane on 4/15

I have always wondered how my amazing Green Singing Finch is able to compose sonatas so effortlessly.  His vocalizations and harmonics are perfect and they last forever.  I’ve asked him how he performs this without having to take a breath without a clear answer from him;however now you’ve given me the answer. Thank you.  I always look forwards to your e-newsletters and consistently learn something valued and new.  Thank you.  Sincerely, Margot

Posted by Margot Van Horn on 4/15

The marvelous design of the bird is definitive evidence to a Creator, not blind, undirected chance.

Posted by Ken on 4/15

very interesting facts about birds. they are almost more efficient in everyway than we are

Posted by carol gelfand on 4/15

I agree with Gary - the Mockingbirds are my new favorite bird since I moved to Virginia from the Midwest.  I love them - their modest attire, the white stripes visible on their wings when they fly and their personalities in general. Both males and females sing and they can imitate anything - other birds songs, frogs, crickets, alarms, you name it; they can duplicate the sound.  In addition, they have their own pleasant songs. If you have a pair of mockingbirds in the vicinity, it sounds as though you have a variety of wild birds in residence. They’ve made this major move in my life easier.

Posted by Pamela d. on 4/16

To Ken:
Faith is not provable and evidence is irrelevant to it.  That’s why it’s faith.

To change the subject:
Babies can nurse and breathe at the same time.  I wonder if the ability came about twice, or if a common ancestor had already developed it for something else.  Anybody know?

Posted by Barbara Bernhardt on 4/16

Ken, natural selection is not blind chance, but what keeps us and other species strong.  Birds evolved from reptiles…this has been proven.  Evidence is irrelevant to those that make claims of proof of something that cannot be proved.

Posted by Douglas Trent on 4/16

Of all the songs I love, the red cardinal is my favorite. My day is made when I hear the familiar call and look into the trees to see the bright red at the top of the tree!

Posted by LEU on 4/24

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